Principles for better remote facilitation

Improve your dialogues and achieve better outcomes

Abram El-Sabagh
4 min readJun 7, 2020

Design facilitation is about brokering dialogues so that people can come together to discuss important topics and unleash their potential. As a facilitator, my aim is to create conditions where those dialogues flourish, where people can have useful crucial conversations. (1)

One designer explains the power of design facilitation:

Design facilitation is the process of helping a cross-functional team to capture, evaluate, and merge disparate ideas to create a better overall product. It often is a lot harder than it sounds, but the ability to be a great facilitator of design is the secret sauce that all influential designers and design leaders have in common. (2)

As my team and I moved to a digital-first approach, we faced a set of challenges. My aim with this article is to share what these challenges were and how we managed to overcome them. Hopefully, this will help you and your team to understand how to improve your dialogues and achieve better outcomes.

When it comes to designing user experiences in a large organisation, a problem emerges — no one team owns the whole experience. Each team has responsibility for a part, like “on-boarding”, or “customer support”, or “content”. Although this builds the expertise of each team in their area, the downside is that customers fall between the cracks. Depending on your context, the consequence of that ranges from unprofitable to catastrophic.

And this is where design facilitation comes in because, with it, you can bring a variety of people across teams to work together towards a shared outcome — in our case, improving an end-to-end experience for customers.

The challenges we faced

As we were preparing for a series of workshops, we faced some challenges that we had to overcome to create the best environment for people to have a constructive dialogue.

The first was when I found out that not everyone would have access to video conferencing hardware. We also had to use specific tools due to security reasons. This meant that if we were to choose a technology that works for everyone, it would be a phone line (ugh, I know).

Because remote facilitation is a bit more difficult than in-person facilitation, one facilitator is not enough to keep 30 people engaged. However, this introduces a new problem. How do you go about co-facilitating when each facilitator is in a different place?

To add to this, people are still getting used to the idea of working remotely, especially in a collaborative way. There are several popular tools for designers, like Mural and Miro, but non-designers are not necessarily across these.

Principles we learnt

Here are some principles we’ve learnt and applied over the past few months.

Be patient and considerate

People are still adjusting to working remotely. People feels your patience and consideration, and in return they engage more fully with the dialogue. We’ve found that a three-hour session gives you the best use of people’s time while keeping them engaged. Any longer and people will disengage pretty rapidly.

Use the minimum denominator of tech available

Use the technology that is accessible by everyone involved. In our case, we facilitated a few sessions over phone, and surprisingly, we got the best feedback from that! Of course it was challenging, but it was worth it because it was inclusive.

Prepare, then wing it

It’s important to prepare a session but be prepared for it to go differently. If it’s your first time facilitating online, you might be nervous, and that’s okay. Do a dry run with an ally who can give you tips on how to improve.

Rehearse your use of tech

This one’s easy — do a dry run before your workshop so that you can make sure the technology and tools you’ll use will work how you need them to.

Touch-in as co-facilitators away from the group

The more people involved, the more facilitators you’ll need. Checking-in at regular intervals will help you stay on the same page. To avoid confusion, we agreed to use a different tool than the one we used for facilitation. This helped us avoid distracting workshop participants.

Know who’s onboard

Don’t leave anyone behind. Check how the group is going at regular points. This will help people feel supported and encourage them ask for support when they need it.

Check the temperature. Keep a track of people’s names when you start the workshop and keep your eye out on who’s engaged and who isn’t. This will help you ask questions of those who seem less engaged to keep the energy up.

Use the best tool for the job

Use tools for the purpose you’re aiming for. You don’t need to use Miro for ideating if a simpler tool like Groupmap will do. One the other hand, if you’re mapping the future experience or a journey map, Miro is probably better suited.

Final note

Design facilitation is a privilege — you get to help others have constructive dialogues about important issues. Treat it as a privilege, and in return, people will be engaged and put their best foot forward.

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Abram El-Sabagh

Human-centred designer. ThinkPlace. Designing for positive outcomes.